Bureaucracy's Disaster Clock

Hoping that the Gulf oil spill will ignite a new zeal for safety at the Minerals Management Service (MMS)? Read this Washington Post article about another agency literally at the government's doorstep, the Washington Metro. Of course commuter rail safety and deep sea drilling present radically different technical and organizational issues, and the metro is an operating organization rather than a regulator. The case still shows that replacing leaders may not change behavior.

The MMS's woes over the years illustrate how reform can be part of the problem. It didn't help that it was created by Ronald Reagan and his notorious Interior Secretary James Watt without congressional action. As the American Enterprise Institute's Norman J. Ornstein has noted, Congress never took responsibility for supervising the agency. For years it appeared to be Washington's cash cow and golden goose.

And what happened when the Clinton-Gore administration brought Democrats back in the White House? Read this 1998 MMS report, which boasts among other things about how the interval for Blowout Preventer (BOP) safety inspection was changed from once every eight days to once every 14 days after a study co-funded by petroleum trade associations. Who knows, maybe the change was really justified, but at least in hindsight the MMS took an inordinate pride in it. In any case, Al Gore himself was a big MMS fan:

The Vice President's "Hammer Award" was presented to MMS at an October 1997 ceremony as recognition for the Agency's innovative achievements program. The initiative focuses on improving customer service, employee creativity in solving problems, and streamlining work processes. The MMS was specifically recognized for evolving from a traditional agency to a customer- and mission-driven organization.

The document did not specify who the "customers" were, or what was the "mission." There's more about MMS's "Innovative Achievements" in this 1997 press release. Curiously, considering Mr. Gore's best-selling Earth in the Balance, better rules for reducing pollution and greenhouse emissions weren't among them.

What to do? In the 1960s some political scientists developed a theory of "reorganization cycles." Anthony Downs described the challenge in Inside Bureaucracy (1967). So far they seem to apply to attempts by the Obama administration to reform MMS:

(1)They involve a reshuffling of relationships at higher and intermediate but not at the lowest levels. (2) They are effective in the short run. (3) Any gains in performance are gradually obliterated. (4) Reappearance of the original lack of control eventually stimulates another reorganization

One specific problem of technological bureaucracy is the lack of independent review of vital rules developed by industry. When one set of such standards was published recently by the MMS before adoption, no environmental organization offered comments; only Baker Oil Tools and the Offshore Operators Committee did, according to this analysis. If Barack Obama found a way not to repeat but to break the reorganization cycle -- that would be radical change.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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